Where the Grass is Greener

Strict lawn care rules enforced by homeowners associations are prompting people to use more fertilizer, which can pollute streams, bays, and other bodies of water, researchers say.

“The lawn is one of the most enduring landscape esthetics of neighborhoods in the United States,” the team writes in Landscape and Urban Planning. A lush, perfectly-maintained lawn is not only a sign of homemaking prowess but, in some people’s eyes, also reflects on one’s worth as a parent or neighbor.

But tending that small patch of grass can have big consequences. Fertilizer often gets washed into nearby bodies of water, contributing to harmful algal blooms. And rising populations are making the problem worse. In Maryland, for example, the amount of fertilizer used for non-agricultural purposes has more than tripled since 1990.

The study authors wondered if neighborhood and homeowners associations contributed to people’s overzealous use of fertilizer. Both types of organizations frequently include landscaping standards in their lists of rules, although only homeowners associations have the authority to take legal action against delinquent residents.

The team surveyed 498 people in Baltimore and Baltimore County, Maryland, collecting information about fertilizer use and whether they were part of a neighborhood or homeowners association. More than half of the residents reported fertilizing their lawns, and 47 percent of those people applied more than the legal state limit.

As the researchers suspected, people who were part of homeowners associations tended to apply more fertilizer. (Neighborhood associations didn’t have the same effect, probably because they lacked legal authority.) The team concludes that homeowners associations “shape household lawn behaviors: by obliging people to maintain a high esthetic standard, they encourage higher usage of chemicals to attain those standards.” Roberta Kwok | 16 April 2013

Source: Fraser, J.C. et al. 2013. Covenants, cohesion, and community: The effects of neighborhood governance on lawn fertilization. Landscape and Urban Planning doi: 10.1016/j.landurbplan.2013.02.013.

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